Thinking about Amoris Laetitia: Should sacramental discipline change?

As promised in my last post, I would like to make a simple contribution to the conversation about communion for the divorced and remarried.  The questions competent people raise about moral philosophy are important, but I plan to take time over the Christmas break to think them through more carefully.

In any case, I think the moral philosophy questions are something of a red herring.  First Cardinal Casper and then Pope Francis mustered ethical arguments to show that the divorced and remarried may not be culpable for their ongoing situation, but it appears to me that their arguments are off-topic.  The arguments the Church has heretofore given for the exclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics from communion have not been rooted in moral philosophy but in sacramental theology.  Here’s a sampling:

They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. (Familiaris Consortio 84)

And this:

The Synod of Bishops confirmed the Church’s practice, based on Sacred Scripture (cf. Mk 10:2- 12), of not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments, since their state and their condition of life objectively contradict the loving union of Christ and the Church signified and made present in the Eucharist. (Sacramentum Caritatis 29)

And this:

They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and his church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. (Issued under instruction by John Paul II by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a letter to the world’s bishops)

In each document, we find an emphasis on (a) the objective situation of the divorced and remarried and on (b) that which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.  How exactly to understand this argument may be something experts should address, but this much anyone can see:  the argument is not about the subjective culpability of the divorced and remarried.

To the best of my understanding, the Church’s argument works something like this.  Reception of the Eucharist is a sacrament, that is, a sign that effects what it signifies.  The priest does not take a host and touch each of us on the forehead; he does not rub the host on our temples; we eat the host, because only this signifies (and therefore brings about) our union with Christ.  Eucharistic adoration is great, but it is not a sacrament, because it does not signify (and hence does not effect) our union with Christ.  To put it in a nutshell, when someone receives the Eucharist he performs a sign—he “says” something by his actions, and what he “says” is made real by Christ’s power.

When someone is aware of having committed grave sin, he knows that he has put himself in a state that contradicts what he would “say” if he received the Eucharist.  Moreover, he knows that without the life of grace in his soul what he “said” by receiving the Eucharist would not be made real in him.  If he were to receive the Eucharist then he would know that he “said” outwardly and what was really true inwardly were in contradiction, and he would know that he had performed the sacramental action while intentionally preventing it from being fruitful.  Those are bad things, and he shouldn’t do them.

But when someone is in a public state of sin, that is, when someone has a public commitment to continuing his sin, new dimensions are added.  There is the danger of scandal:  “Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.” (Familiaris Consortio 84)  There is also a new problem in relation to the Eucharistic sign itself:  when a person’s sin is public and stable, he carries that visible state with him into his sacramental action, with the result that what he performs is in fact outwardly contradictory.  It’s not just that he knows he is lying:  his outward action both asserts and denies his union with Christ, at the same time.  His public, stable situation says “I am not in union with Christ,” while his sacramental action says “I am in union with Christ.”

Almost all the time, a public, stable state of sin goes along with subjective guilt.  But the new dimensions added by the public, stable state of sin are in theory separable from subjective guilt.  The danger of scandal does not change if the politician who persistently advocates abortion is, in his heart of hearts, sincerely confused and really in a state of grace.  The contradiction in the sacramental sign does not change if the politician’s interior, invisible state is out of sync with his outward, visible state.

The case of marriage may be slightly more pointed than others.  As John Paul II says,

The Eucharist is the very source of Christian marriage. The Eucharistic Sacrifice, in fact, represents Christ’s covenant of love with the Church, sealed with His blood on the Cross. In this sacrifice of the New and Eternal Covenant, Christian spouses encounter the source from which their own marriage covenant flows, is interiorly structured and continuously renewed. (Familiaris Consortio 57)

And Pope Benedict XVI adds,

If the Eucharist expresses the irrevocable nature of God’s love in Christ for his Church, we can then understand why it implies, with regard to the sacrament of Matrimony, that indissolubility to which all true love necessarily aspires. (Sacramentum Caritatis 29)

The Eucharist signifies and effects the union between Christ and his Church, and the bond of marriage also signifies the union between Christ and his Church while it brings the spouses into a participation in that union.  The spouses are obliged by the sacrament of marriage to make the union of Christ and the Church visible in their own lives, so a failure to do so may contradict the meaning of receiving communion in a particularly sharp way.

Be that as it may, if there are Catholics who obtained a civil second marriage after contracting a valid sacramental marriage and yet somehow are not culpable for persisting in that state, then pastors still cannot tell them it is OK to receive communion.  It would be as though the pastor were approached by a young couple who asked if they could engage in sexual relations outside of marriage.  Even if the pastor discerned that these young people were so ignorant of their actions that they would not be morally culpable, there would still be a perversion in the act itself and consequently a detriment to their good.  Similarly, those who want to approach the sacrament of the Eucharist while living in a second, civil marriage are asking permission to do something intrinsically disordered and consequently harmful to them.

The argument based on sacramental theology seems reasonable.  But as far as I know, neither Cardinal Kasper nor Pope Francis have ever responded to this argument or even acknowledged its existence.  From my point of view, no one will be able to cogently defend the admission of the divorced and remarried to communion without responding to the primary argument the Church has made in the past against that practice.

I have thought about these issues, as I believe I am obliged by Pope Francis’s instruction to do.  But until further evidence is produced, I have to conclude that, as far as sacramental theology goes, the older view stands.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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7 years ago

This is not an unreasonable argument, but it is equally an argument against the admission of Orthodox or Protestants to communion, even under special circumstances. It is in fact the reason why this was never done in the past: the public condition of such a person expresses a lack of union with the Church, and therefore with Christ. But the 1983 code allows this under some circumstances, and thus the sedevacantists, for example, argue that the new law on this matter is invalid in itself. So even without explicitly responding to the argument, if you accept that there could be… Read more »

6 years ago

Dr. Holmes, First of all thank you for keeping this more charitable than many of the other critiques of Amoris Laetitia. I do think AL indirectly addresses this, with its talk of avoiding scandal and being discrete and tactful. I can see two situations where this could be avoided: 1. It is not generally a matter of public knowledge that the couple is in a second marriage. Maybe the first marriage was in another city or even another country, for example. 2. It is widely known that they are remarried, but the couple arranges to privately receive communion from a… Read more »